Climate Jeopardy

A. “Up a creek.’

Q. What is President Obama’s climate action plan and where does that leave Stephen Harper?

I would have suggested the answer was “high and dry,” but given the increasing likelihood of major floods across Canada, that didn’t seem like the right answer. That creek has a name and it isn’t one of the thousands of creeks, streams and rivers removed from the Navigable Waters Protection Act last fall. And if you are recalling that there are no paddles available, you have the right creek in mind.

Ever since the 2008 election of Barack Obama as president of the United States and Stephen Harper’s shrewd assessment that Obama was far more popular in Canada than Harper ever would be, Stephen Harper hitched his determined do-nothing climate strategy to Obama’s wagon.

It seemed a safe bet. Obama didn’t look like much of a risk for a do-nothing strategy. With the House and Senate in perpetual grid-lock, with an ascendant Koch Brothers-funded denier movement unravelling the fragile US consensus that climate change was a threat, or real at all, a Canadian strategy of “:waiting for Obama” had the benefit of genius. Canadians would not fault a Canadian Prime Minister for waiting for a USA under Obama, while they/we would have annihilated a PM who announced he had to wait for George W. Bush.

Previous Prime Ministers pointed out this was no strategy at all. On no previous issue of public policy had any Canadian government ever announced publicly that our plan was to do nothing until the US told us what it was doing first so we could copy them. Former PM Paul Martin was direct in his criticism, while Brian Mulroney was more oblique. In answer to my questions in a rare Corporate Knights magazine interview, Brian Mulroney confirmed that had Canada waited for the US before taking any action on acid rain, we would have abandoned any hope of moving the US. And we would not have solved the acid rain threat.

Still, there were very few voices ready to criticize “waiting for Obama.” And like a Beckett play, the wait had the sense of nihilism to its futility.

But then along came an Obama second term, and with it Superstorm Sandy as a sub-text and increasingly alarmed voices in the scientific community. Obama’s Inauguration address heralded a new approach:

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms….

We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise.

And then his State of the Union appeared to be increasingly serious. Even the General Accounting Office of the Federal government upgraded the climate crisis as “high risk” to the assets of the US government.

And finally, this week, the US President has finally taken action. He is no longer willing to wait for the Congress to act. He has announced a series of measures that require no legislative approval. He has announced a climate plan that can be undertaken through executive order.

The list of measures is impressive: new standards for trucks and heavy-duty vehicles, investments in energy efficiency for both residential as well as institutional and commercial buildings, more projects on federal lands in renewable energy, plans to invest in climate resilient infrastructure, adaptation planning to prepare for the extreme weather events we can no longer avoid, and most importantly, a commitment to regulate carbon from coal fired power plants in the same way that mercury and arsenic are already regulated.

Interestingly, for a country with no comprehensive climate plan other than waiting for Obama, Canada gets no mention at all. In fact, when reading Obama’s plan (which follows this blog in full) what is striking is that in listing international partners, Canada is nowhere to be found. Obama cites increased efforts with China, Brazil, Mexico, India, Indonesia, South Africa, as well as a references to all of Africa and nations with tropical forests and those addressing drought (probably didn’t help that Harper has withdrawn Canada from both the Convention on Drought and Desertification as well as the International Tropical Timber Organization).

No doubt the PMO is preparing its spin cycle for claims that Canada has a great plan. But our regulation of carbon emissions from coal plants, set to take effect in 2015, is so weak that it is a safe bet the EPA regs will clear the Harper approach by a wide margin. The Harper coal regs allow any coal plant built before the regs take effect in two years to be free of any regulation until 2065. That’s right, 2065. Fifty years from now. And we have no federal adaptation, energy efficiency or renewables programme.

So, having waited for Obama all this time, there can be no excuse for not putting in place all the same policies as Obama. And, since Stephen Harper, unlike Barack Obama, has complete control of both the executive and legislative functions of government, we should also be able to see those measures Mr, Obama missed, such as carbon pricing. We should be ready to launch into action.

Then again, I wonder what the next excuse for a do-nothing policy will be. Perhaps we have to wait for Saudi Arabia?